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The True Cost of Trade Agreements

Mexico is a country of stark contrasts, with a huge and growing gap between rich and poor. The minimum wage is 88 pesos a day (equivalent

to about $6 Cdn a day).


W hile the mainstream media focus
on NAFTA renegotiations, Mexico
is in the throes of a devastating human
assassination as Mexico has become the
B y As ad Is m i most deadly country in the Americas to
practise journalism.
rights crisis marked by massive violence and impu- Pastrana was part of a delegation of Mexican activ-
nity. “Countries like Canada could do a lot more to ists who spoke in Ottawa in October 2017 at the
pressure Mexico to put an end to the violence, but invitation of members of the Americas Policy Group
they don’t because of their economic interests. This of the Canadian Council for International Coopera-
means they also bear some responsibility for the more tion, including the Public Service Alliance of Canada,
than 180,000 homicides and over 33,000 disappeared United Steelworkers and the Canadian Union of Pub-
during the last decade,” says journalist Daniela Pas- lic Sector workers.
trana of the journalist network ‘Periodistas de a Pie.’ About 300,000 people are reported forcibly dis-
The organization’s members face increasing risk of placed in Mexico. The state has met public protests
our times 2 0 1 7 / 1 8 winter 33
with arbitrary detentions and excessive use of force
by police, including sexual violence against women.
Workers and union activists trying to exercise their
right to freedom of association have also suffered
increasing levels of violence.

Attacks on women are rampant and a 2017 United
Nations report, as quoted by the Canadian Council
on International Cooperation (CCIC), documents
increasing threats and deadly violence directed at those
“who speak up for human rights, search for the missing,
report on violence and corruption, or dare to defend
Indigenous territory and oppose resource extraction.”
Amélie Nguyen, coordinator of the Centre for
International Workers Solidarity — Centre inter-
Journalist Daniela Pastrana, far right, was part of a
national de solidarité ouvrière (CISO) based in
delegation of Mexican activists who spoke in Ottawa in
Montreal, told me that “Representatives of social
October 2017, Here she addresses the parliamentary
movements in Mexico speak of a real reign of ter-
human rights committee.
ror that they face day after day. Many of them have
already received death threats and most of them
have known one or more close associates murdered according to the Mexican newspaper Reforma, partly
or disappeared . . . Torture is also very common in due to several corruption scandals. Peña Nieto took
Mexican prisons, including rape.” office in 2012 and belongs to the Institutional Revo-
CISO organized an inter-union delegation to Mex- lutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for 71 con-
ico in December 2017 to observe the human rights tinuous years from 1929 to 2000.
situation and that of workers. The delegation was Julia Quiñones was one of the Mexican activists
made up of union representatives from eight Qué- who spoke in Ottawa. She is coordinator of the Bor-
bec trade union organizations who met with inde- der Committee of Women Workers — Comité Fron-
pendent labour organizations, advocacy groups and terizo de Obreras (CFO) in Mexico. Quiñones told
environmental groups to better understand the con- me “Societies in each country, be it Canada, Mexico
ditions in Mexico, in order to act in solidarity upon or the USA, should focus on the systematic problems,
returning home. and not just react to a situation when it becomes a
‘crisis,’ when the cases are of extreme abuse. It’s not
The human rights crisis is exacerbated by about whether one country has ‘better’ human rights
than another. Nor is it a matter of empty discourse
the poverty caused by NAFTA that lacks concrete action to guarantee human rights
for all people in all three countries.”
This human rights crisis is exacerbated by the pov- Quiñones points out that on the northern border
erty caused by NAFTA in Mexico, and all these issues of Mexico, the two key labour rights (which are also
will play a major part in the Mexican elections sched- human rights) of Mexican workers — the right to a
uled for July 2018. The front-runner presently is the living wage and the right to organize a union in order
leader of the leftist National Regeneration Movement to attain such pay, are regularly violated. Salaries for
(MORENA) party, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. workers in maquilas (border factories producing for
The public approval rating of the current Presi- export) are very low, forcing people to get two and
dent, Enrique Peña Nieto, has plummeted to 12 per three jobs. Workers are subjected to “inhuman” shifts
cent (the lowest ever for a Mexican head of state), of 10 to 16 hours a day in plants with poor ventilation

34 winter 2017/18 our times
and lighting. They are given large production quotas take any action against social protests. This militarizes
to be fulfilled with machines that don’t work properly. public security, further subordinates civil authority to
They are constantly harassed and often not even paid military power and thereby escalates the violation of
for their labour. human and labour rights. This shift in power is partic-
The freedom of association and right to organize ularly dangerous in light of the fact that the military
are violated as soon as the companies are created, has been responsible for numerous massacres around
according to Quiñones, because from the start, the the country since 2014.
corporations come equipped with a union controlled The second piece of legislation being considered
by management. This blocks workers from organizing by the Senate (to be voted on in February 2018)
their own union to fight for their demands. destroys the few labour rights Mexican workers still
The lack of decent salaries and working conditions possess by removing all limits on subcontracting and
in the Mexican factories “has always been a hallmark dispensing with the requirement that workers have
of NAFTA and the maquiladora industry that predates to vote by secret ballot on any collective contract.
the agreement,” emphasizes Quiñones. “With time Thus companies can outsource their entire workforce
this has created an atmosphere of permanent abuse legally and impose a union of their choice on work-
ers. Arturo Alcalde Justiniani, writing in La Jornada, a
The lack of decent salaries and working Mexican newspaper, called these labour reforms “gro-
conditions in the Mexican factories has tesque and absurd” and considers them to have “com-
pletely nullified” labour rights.
always been a hallmark of NAFTA Louise Casselman, Social Justice Fund officer with
the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), agrees.
and violation of workers’ human rights that has con- Casselman, one of the many organizers from NGOs
tributed to corporate impunity.” and unions who helped make the Mexican delega-
Mexico’s human and labour rights crisis is set to get tion’s visit to Ottawa possible, told me “This legisla-
even worse now that the draconian Internal Security tion renders the exercise of collective labour rights
Act was passed in the country’s Senate in December impossible while enriching the corporations. It pro-
of 2017. The legislation legalizes the presence of the motes more precarious work, and drives Mexican
military in the streets, and empowers the president to wages even lower.”

Mexico is one of the most corrupt countries in the world and Mexicans already live in a kind of police state. A new law

on internal security adopted in December 2017 now means the army is ultimately responsible for the application of the


our times 2 0 1 7 / 1 8 winter 35
destroyed. According to Nguyen, prior to NAFTA,
Mexico’s economy was largely based on the cultiva-
tion of local products, including corn. Before NAFTA,
Mexico grew 85 per cent of its rice requirements but
now, 23 years after NAFTA, the country imports 90
per cent of its rice. Nguyen adds that the demise of
Mexican agriculture focused on the domestic market
generated a large pool of “cheap labour for exploita-
tion by large national and foreign corporations. For
example, industrial free-trade zones were created in
the north of Mexico where maquiladoras of the tex-
tile and automobile industries were established, and
where exploitation and abuse are concentrated for
workers. According to our Mexican partner orga-
nizations, this was not a coincidence, but a well
Benedicto Martinez, pictured here, is president of the Real thought-out strategy to create a reserve of cheap
Front of Workers (FAT). FAT is one of the few unions in the labour and to increase the profits of big business by
country not controlled by the Mexican government. exploiting misery.”
This toxic mix of hyper-neoliberalism, mas-
sive criminality, state repression and violence, and
According to Nguyen, “The labour reforms mean astounding official corruption in Mexico has been
the end of independent trade unionism in Mexico. driven by and benefited the Mexican, U.S. and Cana-
Already, only 10 per cent of Mexican unions are inde- dian elites while robbing ordinary Mexicans of their
pendent and work for the defence of labour rights, basic necessities, and their political and social rights.
often at great risks, while the others most often play Such an extreme system can be sustained only by
a role of social pacification to promote the interests turning Mexico into a fascist police state. The passage
of large companies.” of the Internal Security Act is further evidence that
the PRI is attempting to do just that. The possibility
The Internal Security Act empowers the of the leftist MORENA party winning the elections
in July 2018 may result in the Mexican political elite
president to take any action against social
Casselman warns that Mexico is suffering a crisis of
“unprecedented dimensions,” which is not limited to
human and labour rights. These two issues are com-
bined with those of massive drug corruption, traf-
ficking and criminalization, all three of which have
reached the highest levels of political and economic
power. “Mexico has the most powerful criminal gangs
in the world,” explains Casselman, “and there is not a
sphere of Mexican life that is not impacted by orga-
nized crime, impunity, corruption of public officials,
up to and including the president.
“These gangs now control all aspects of life in Mex-
ico, not just drugs, but extortions of all kinds, kidnap-
pings . . . various parts of the economy are now in
the hands of the drug cartels, including the avocado
industry. The police forces and armed forces are often
in cahoots with the criminal gangs, and violence is
spiralling out of control. The situation in Mexico is
really at a critical level.”
Drug trafficking is encouraged by the poverty
and unemployment unleashed by NAFTA. Two mil-
lion Mexican farmers have been forced to leave the
countryside and migrate in search of work to cities
in Mexico or the U.S. NAFTA opened Mexico to
highly subsidized U.S. corn and rice imports with
which individual Mexican farmers could not compete.
That part of the country’s agricultural sector which
focused on production for the domestic market was
36 winter 2017/18 our times
An elected official passes through the cordon of police officers at a camp erected to denounce how subsidies for

reconstruction were allocated following the earthquake of September 19, 2017.

trying to take back political power, through the kind a change that is going to affect the poverty dynamic
of electoral fraud that has marked the last two Mexi- by affecting the rich, they pull the money out of
can elections. Mexico.”
“Mexico’s culture is unravelling,” Professor James
Cypher told me. “No one really knows where the Mexico’s culture is unravelling. No one really
drug cartels end and the government begins.” Cypher
is an expert on the Mexican economy and NAFTA. knows where the drug cartels end and the
He teaches economics at the Autonomous Univer- government begins
sity of Zacatecas in Mexico. Zacatecas is the capital
and largest city of the state of Zacatecas, located in Cypher is not pessimistic about Mexico’s future.
North-Central Mexico. Cypher is the co-author of He believes that Mexicans can put their country on
the books Mexico’s Economic Dilemma (2010) and The a progressive path because they have already done
Process of Economic Development (2009), and the author of so in the past — from the 1930s to the 1970s. “The
State and Capital in Mexico (1990). He considers himself export model does not work for this country, but this
bi-cultural — that is, both Mexican and U.S. Ameri- model is not the inevitable prescription for the future.
can — and has lived off and on in Mexico for 40 Instead of the export model, the emphasis needs to
years. be on a much stronger state role in the economy that
“Mexico should leave NAFTA,” Cypher recom- promotes the internal economy. You have to have
mends. “The migration to the U.S. from Mexico is more public investment, especially in education and
due to NAFTA. The poverty that grew out of NAFTA infrastructure, and address the issues of labour union
had to do with the displacement of the agricultural rights and the environment.
sector. To deal with this poverty you need new labour “Wage policy has to aim at increasing wages to
policies, new labour law, independent unions, fair create internal demand. Mexico also must produce its
elections in the workplace, a drastic change in taxa- own technology. The country needs to slowly delink
tion. The elite pay little in taxes in Mexico. You need from the U.S. and build its own economic institu-
changes in the educational system, a new culture in tions. This means, above all, curbing the Mexican oli-
the business elite because it is largely parasitic, laws garchy, which is primarily a business oligarchy. This
to block capital flight because every time you have was actually done from the 1930s to the 1970s. That
our times 2 0 1 7 / 1 8 winter 37
with it altogether, but neither Washington nor
Ottawa nor the mainstream North American press
will admit that NAFTA has been a major disaster for
the Mexican economy.
As Nguyen puts it, “We are told that NAFTA was
a ‘win-win-win’ situation at the Canadian Embassy
[in Mexico City], but when we asked them to send
us studies to that effect, we were told that we should
‘look for them ourselves.’
“The truth is that NAFTA may have brought for-
eign capital to Mexico but given the large inequi-
ties, we could not see the benefits to local people.
The jobs created have been for a short time, of poor
quality and have not really improved the living con-
A farmer talks to the CISO (Centre for International
ditions of Mexicans.” About 52 per cent of Mexicans
Workers Solidarity) trade union delegation in December
live in poverty.
2017 about his way of life and the issues confronting
For Nguyen it is obvious that the Canadian govern-
peasant farmers in the northern Puebla region of Mexico.
ment refuses to recognize the true nature of NAFTA.
“How can we think that we are negotiating on an
equal footing with a [Mexican] government that
was how Mexico worked. This was considered the blithely violates the rights of its people in order to
Mexican miracle, as the economy grew at about six stay in power and with a country where the minimum
per cent a year [in 2016, the Mexican economy grew
2.3 per cent]. So in the past, Mexico has shown a lot NAFTA may have brought foreign capital
of ability to get the economy organized in a way that
served the interests of the nation rather than those of to Mexico but not benefits to local people
the U.S. Therefore, there is every reason to think this
can be done again, but it will not be easy.” wage is only about $6 Canadian per day?” she asks.
The Trudeau government appears desperate to save “It is very important to publicize the real situation of
NAFTA from the Trump administration, with the lat- the Mexican people under NAFTA and to put pressure
ter determined to fundamentally alter it or dispense on the Canadian government to respect the rights of

Trade Union Lawyers Supporting Working People

For over 35 years Koskie Minsky
LLP has supported the progress
of trade unions in all aspects of
labour relations. Our lawyers are
committed to improving working
conditions, and giving you the
tools you need to make your
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38 winter 2017/18 our times
When 43 Mexican students disappeared in the state of Guerrero on September 26, 2014, the Mexican government

blamed drug traffickers, but this version was disputed by international experts and proven false. Only a few fragments of

burned bones from one of the disappeared have been found.

workers and put an end to the impunity of Mexican about the dire consequences of corporate dominance,
actors and multinational companies; such as Canadian free trade, export-led growth and over-dependence
mining companies that benefit from cheap labour, low on the U.S. market. Without national policies that
royalty rates, lax environmental legislation, and natu- benefit the majority, states are prone to criminality,
ral resources in Mexico.” corruption and violence. But Mexicans are fighting
Nor has NAFTA brought great benefits to Cana- back against their repressive government by voting
dians who have lost a massive number of high-pay- for the MORENA party and in a myriad of struggles
ing manufacturing jobs partly due to the trade treaty. all over the country.
According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alter-
natives, in Canada’s most industrialized province, It is important to publicize the real situation
Ontario, the “well-paying manufacturing sector went
from the bedrock of the economy at 18 per cent of of the Mexican people under NAFTA
the labour market in 2000 to 11 per cent by 2013 — a
loss of 290,000 jobs.” About 60 per cent of Canadians “The basis of any economic agreement between
currently live paycheque to paycheque. countries should be the people,” believes Quiñones.
According to Nguyen, “What we observed during “The interest of communities that generate the wealth
our visit to Mexico is that on a smaller scale and with- should be at the centre, be it their labour rights or the
out the political repression characteristic of Mexico, right to benefit from their natural resources.”
the neoliberal logic which the Mexican population
and social groups are facing is similar to that which Asad Ismi covers international affairs for the Canadian
we face in Canada, be it in terms of austerity, educa- Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor (CCPA Monitor).
tional reform, proximity between private interests and He has written extensively on Latin America and is the
federal and provincial political power, increasingly author of The Latin American Revolution, which is both
lax environmental legislation and decisions taken on a radio documentary and an anthology published by the
extractive projects without the consent of Indigenous CCPA. For his publications, visit
people. NAFTA fits into this model.”
The shocking political and economic condition Many thanks to Raul Burbano and Louise Casselman for
of Mexico today serves as a warning to Canadians translation from Spanish and French respectively.

our times 2 0 1 7 / 1 8 winter 39